An industry was saved when businesses and environmentalists decided to work together, rather than fight. And now Californians are being offered a feast of Pacific coastal fish that once faced extinction.

In the early 2000s, the groundfish population off California’s coast collapsed. Overfishing and the dragging of heavy nets and equipment along the ocean bottom had destroyed the habitats and drastically reduced the numbers of some of the best-tasting fish, including those with such popular names as sand dabs, sole, flounder and chilipepper rockfish.

In response, state and federal regulators limited the number of groundfish that could be caught. The protections economically hurt West Coast ports, surrounding communities and the fishing industry. They also sent consumers primarily to suppliers of imported fish, which constitute about 80 percent of the seafood Americans now eat.

The Nature Conservancy, a nationwide conservation powerhouse that is recognized for its successful land-based conservation programs, stepped into the fray in 2006 to save both the groundfish population and the fishermen who rely on its harvest.

Adapting its model of buying and protecting environmentally sensitive acreage to restoring the groundfish population, the organization privately bought up 13 trawl fishing permits and several California fishing vessels.

“Originally, there was a ton of pressure for us to just ‘shelve’ these permits, meaning hold the fishing rights and ensure these fish were not caught,” said Mary Gleason, science director for The Nature Conservancy’s California Oceans Program. “But we recognized there was a bigger opportunity.”

Instead, the organization entered into a partnership with local fishermen to develop better ways to fish that would do less harm to the groundfish population. These better ways have included the use of lighter trawling equipment that protects habitat and larger-looped nets that allow smaller, younger fish to escape capture. Technology also was introduced to better track groundfish populations.

When The Nature Conservancy “came along, they helped out tremendously and got us through,” said Bernie Norvell, owner of the Fort Bragg-based fishing vessel Donna J, in a Nature Conservancy news release. He added that The Nature Conservancy also needed the fishermen to help the organization reach its conservation goals.

“Almost as soon as we got the permits, we started looking for ways to maximize their long-term value for both conservation and for communities,” said Kate Kauer, fisheries director for The Nature Conservancy’s California Oceans Program. “We thought that, in the end, we would not hold these fishing rights forever.”

And that is exactly what has happened. The Nature Conservancy recently announced the transfer of the last of its groundfish fishing rights to trusts established in four California port communities: Morro Bay, Half Moon Bay, Monterey and Fort Bragg.

The transfer marked a decade of working with fishermen, coastal communities and state and federal agencies. The successful effort demonstrates the power of working together to find solutions, rather than special interest groups stubbornly fighting each other.

The California Groundfish Collective reported that the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program has given its “Green/Best Choice” for seafood award to the collaborative effort. This includes awarding the only “Green” rating in California and the U.S. to California rockfish.

Now, the challenges for the groundfish industry, fishermen and The Nature Conservancy are telling people about the restoration of California’s groundfish population and enticing consumers to resume eating the fish.

“Keeping and protecting the fishing rights and fish stocks in our local community creates sustainability, not only of this tremendous resource, but of our local economy,” said Sherry Fulmerfelt, executive director of the Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust. “Our next challenge is spreading the word to the public, restaurants and consumers that these fish are available and being fished sustainably. They need to know we’re open for business so we can put local-sourced sustainable groundfish back on menus and in homes.”

It’s an easy sell at Uricchio’s Trattoria on 17th Street in downtown Bakersfield, where sand dab is a popular menu item. Despite the struggle to keep sand dabs swimming onto local plates, the dish has remained in demand with loyal, local customers.

URICCHIO’S SAND DABS

Claire Uricchio Porter uses her grandmother’s recipe, which was her late father, Nick’s, favorite, to please local customers. Although the present owner and operator of the iconic Uricchio’s Trattoria restaurant will not give away her family’s “secret” sand dab recipe, she does offer some advice to Bakersfield cooks.

Sand dabs are small, delicate Pacific Coast-type flounders. They have a sweet, soft texture that is both moist and mild. They can be cooked in a variety of ways. If you are dining at Uricchio’s, they will be pan-fried in olive oil and topped with a lemon butter sauce.

Porter offers some basic instructions if you want to cook sand dabs at home:

● Buy fillets. Because sand dabs are small fish, each fillet will be about 4 ounces. A plate at Uricchio’s usually comes with three or four fillets, depending on their size.

● Peel off the skin from each fillet.

● Mix egg and flour in a bowl together.

● Dredge the fish fillets in the mixture.

● Pan-fry the fillets in olive oil, turning once to brown both sides.

● Remove fillets and drain.

● Top with a lemon butter sauce.

● Serve immediately.

ANOTHER FAMILY RECIPE

Bakersfield marketing manager Maureen Buscher-Dang borrows a recipe from her late mother-in-law, Wong Moon Dang, to cook favorite fish dishes for her husband, Alex. These dishes include groundfish caught off the California coast. In 1984, on an early date with Alex, Maureen first tasted the recipe that has become a menu staple. Alex asked his mother to share the recipe with Maureen. He wrote it out on a piece of paper and even drew a picture of the recommended cooking pot. After more than three decades of marriage, Maureen still has that now-yellowed recipe and drawing. Maureen alternates baking and steaming the recipe.

● 2 pounds firm white fish fillets (rock cod, bass, etc.)

● 1/2 cup white wine, sherry or vodka

● 1/2 cup soy sauce

● 1 teaspoon cornstarch

● 1 teaspoon brown bean sauce

● 1 teaspoon granulated sugar

● 4 cloves of garlic, sliced

● 1 teaspoon of sliced, fresh ginger (sliced to look like matchsticks)

● 4 green onions, sliced

● 1/8 teaspoon Chinese five spice powder

● 2 tablespoons peanut oil

Preparation:

● Arrange the fish fillets in two 9-inch round, glass pie plates.

● Combine the soy sauce, cornstarch, brown bean sauce, Chinese five spice and wine in a small bowl and pour over the fish fillets.

● Layer over the top the garlic, ginger and green onion slices, and the peanut oil.

● For the oven, cover baking pan with foil and cook at 350 degrees for 20 minutes until it is opaque and flaky.

● If you want to steam the fish instead, place the baking pan in a steamer or device that will serve as a steamer. Cook until flaky.

THE FISHERMEN

When I need “manly advice” on outdoor stuff, I often turn to Tom Haslebacher, a longtime friend, good sport and retired geologist. When I asked him for fish-cooking advice, he confessed that I was "barfing" up the wrong tree. It seems Haslebacher would rather keep his feet planted firmly on land. His stomach is just not up to deep-sea fishing. Instead, he turned to his brother-in-law, Frank “Pancho” Lozano, who lives in Bakersfield and works for a local water district, and his former neighbor, Bob Kuster, who is happily retired from a sales job in Bakersfield, for groundfish cooking instructions. Both are avid ocean fishermen.

● Bob Kuster: Fillet the fish and soak the fillets overnight in salt water. Then soak the fillets in buttermilk for an hour before cooking. Roll the fillets in a mix of flour and cornmeal and then fry them in a skillet.

● Frank Lozano: Scale the fish, but leave the head on, Mexican style. (Haslebacher: “Ugh, it still has the head on. How gross. Well, you can’t please everyone.”) Slice into the meat as if you are filleting the fish. Cover with olive oil, garlic, sea salt and pepper. Bake in the oven or place on a foil to grill in the barbecue. Cook until the meat pulls away from the bones easily.

Dianne Hardisty retired as The Californian’s editorial page editor. She can be reached at dhardisty123@gmail.com.

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